This Special Edition of The Playwright’s Playground continues The Playmaker Series: CATF 2014. In a series of in depth conversations, I speak with the artistic teams associated with the plays at this year’s Contemporary American Theater Festival. Playwrights and the Directors share revealing behind the scene insights about their inspirations and the development of their new plays. It’s always refreshing and reaffirming to speak with artists who are not only passionate about the work they do, but are open about sharing their creative process and motivations.
Kristin Horton is the Director of the World Premiere of Chisa Hutchinson’s Dead & Breathing atthe Contemporary American Theater Festival 2014. The New York-based director is primarily interested in developing new plays that engage cross-cultural dialogue as well as reinventing the classics for the contemporary stage.
Horton began her career as a member of the Living Stage Theatre Company, the groundbreaking social change theater of Arena Stage, where she created performances for a diverse audience including incarcerated men and women. While in Washington, D.C., she also produced education programs for the Kennedy Center and served as artistic director of Full Contact. Horton has a B.A. Religion, Emory University, and a 2003 M.F.A. in Directing from the University of Iowa. She is in her eighth year as an Assistant Professor of Practice at the New York University Gallatin School of Individualized Study where sheteaches courses in advanced acting, directing, and Shakespeare as well as an interdisciplinary seminar on performing objects. Additionally, Horton serves as the Artistic Director of the Gallatin Arts Festival.
Kristin Horton received the Gallatin Dean’s Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2013-2014, and is the recipient of several fellowships including the 2005-2007 National Endowment for the Arts/Theater Communications Group Career Development Program for Directors, Sundance Theater Lab, and Oregon Shakespeare Festival. She is an Artistic Associate at the Lark, and has been an Artistic Associate of Riverside Theatre for over a decade.
Our interview took place immediately following an hour long phone conversation Kristin had with Aunt Veronika, the source material and inspiration for Dead & Breathing.
Sydney-Chanele: You just had a conversation with the playwright’s Aunt Veronika, the inspiration for Dead & Breathing. What did you learn and how has Chisa Hutchinson crafted a character based on her in the play?
Kristin: Chisa was inspired by her Aunt Veronika to write a play. She is this incredible transgender activist, educator and nurse out in California whom I believe Chisa spent some time with growing up. While the character in the play shares a lot of the real Aunt Veronika’s core values – and here is Chisa’s genius – they are two separate people. What an inspiration for the past hour! I’m still very moved and it’s all still sinking in. Talk about someone who lives a life of extraordinary radical compassion and love and forgiveness.
You have someone who has survived circumstances beyond what I can imagine. We talked a lot about her being a Hospice Nurse and about the amount of love and compassion she can offer her patients. She shared quite a few personal stories about what it’s like to lose a patient that had us all crying, and said that with every one of them she made sure they knew that they were loved, that their existence was important on Earth.
That’s what life is all about – the evolution of our existence. This play has a lot of undertones/overtones about spirituality and religion, and with Christianity at least, the most important thing is to love one another.
Radical love, yes, radical love and having an open heart and having that capacity for forgiveness. The real Aunt Veronica talked a lot today about dealing with hostility in patients because they’re dealing with the fact that they’re dying. Her strategy is to meet that with love instead of resistance.
You said radical love. What do you mean by that? Why do you say radical love as opposed to just saying love?
I think the way I think about that is love’s capacity to forgive, openness to let go of ego, and to really witness the needs of others . . . and to see the heart of the other person even if their heart might be buried.
Describe the plot of Dead & Breathing?
Dead & Breathing is about a woman (Carolyn) who is dying. She has had enormous family wealth and privilege for a long time and the story is about how she meets her match. She meets this incredible Hospice Nurse who unlike any of the other nurses -and she’s gone through a string of them-stays. This is a nurse that doesn’t run away from her but is really willing to meet her where she is and takes us onto the course of the play. I think of it as this enormous journey of salvation – salvation in both the religious and nonreligious sense – salvation as liberation from suffering. And, it might now be the kind of liberation that you thought it was going to be. Or, it might not be the kind of liberation we think it looks like.
In the context of African-American stories on the stage, this is a story of wealth that has not been presented often before. Does the play have a specific setting?
It’s not specified. However with the script, and I think this is important, Chisa is such an economic writer so every word matters. Let me read to you her description from the script of the setting: “Present day. Carolyn’s lovely home is in a town that it’s acceptable to have lovely homes.” So we unpacked that and talked about what that means culturally for us today, and what that means historically. So we did talk about that since she doesn’t specify a particular location but provides context. We talked about the Washington, D.C. Metro area as a potential location about where this location might be.
After reading the script, what were your initial questions to Chisa about the play? Then please explain your directing process.
I always begin the process by asking the playwright what is the impulse behind the play. So Chisa told me about her Aunt early on and some of her experiences. Chisa is an artist who is easily moved and she writes about what she is moved by. So to understand the impulse behind the play, I spend a lot of time on my own trying to understand the text. I try not to get caught up too much in external things, but just seeing what’s on the page – words. Are words clues about the play? Words are a vehicle to understand the characters. How do they speak?
For example, I look for all of the signs I can that are on the page and then I bring the actors into that process pulling them in. When we get up on our feet, I’m trying to create structures in the process that don’t lock us into too many things but create opportunities for us to explore the relationships through scene work – a lot of scene work. The scene work is ever changing. Rehearsal for me is not about repetition and repeating.
With just two characters, this has very much been a play about relationships. It takes place in real time and so it’s an 80 minute-extended scene, which you don’t see much of any more. This is not a criticism, but often with playwrights you see a series of vignettes, and I think that has a lot to do with our multimedia experience now – storytelling on the internet, television . . . It is a great challenge to have an extended scene like this, and one I so welcome.
I want to shift gears here and talk more about you. How did you get started in the theater, and why are you a theater director today?
In the very beginning I didn’t know that I was making theater. My sophomore year in Social Studies there was always an option for individual or group dramatic presentations instead of writing a paper. We were dealing with current events and issues of our day – this was the 80’s – and one of the topics was teen death and suicide. Our group decided to opt for the dramatic presentation but didn’t want to just present facts. Also, someone in our high school had committed suicide, so we wondered how we could open the door for real conversation with our peers. We decided to stage a mock funeral in our school library. We transformed the library into a funeral home and created a fictional student, who would have been like us, and used that as a springboard for conversation about it. I didn’t know at the time that was a form of theater. We had actually created a theatrical event. It wasn’t until I got to college that I realized that I had been making a lot of theater.
Did that lead you to pursue a theater degree or course work in College?
No, it didn’t actually. I was a Religion major in college at Emory University but I kept getting involved in the student theater group. They were really interested in political theater and theater about topics that I was really interested in – innovative theater and theater that was dangerous. That attracted me, and we made plays or devised events.
I never imagined that I could have a career in the theater but through a series of happy accidents I ended up at Arena Stage working for the Living Stage Theater Company. From 1966-2003, I believe, it was the central outreach arm of Arena Stage and it was located at 14th & T. I started as the Assistant to the Artistic Director. What Living Theater did was it created improvise theater and workshops for a diverse audience that included students in the D.C. Public Schools system, homeless families, and we had a program with D.C. Jail system. So for me it was immediate theater that really mattered. I was there for about four years and really learned so much. I knew that I wanted work in community, and what I found at Living Stage is that I could be in the community as an artist.
In 1999, I left the D.C. area and went to grad school at the University of Iowa -where the Playwright’s Workshop is. I went there specifically for an M.F.A. in directing because of the playwriting program because I was so interested in new work and working with playwrights. It was wonderful because when I got there the writers who were there were: Kirsten Greenidge, David Adjmi, Tori Stewart, Allison Moore, Sam Hunter. It was amazing because with all of these writers each had a distinct voice and a different attitude toward theater and the play making event. So it was just exciting to go to a program that had that voice and vision in it, especially for a director to be able to work with so many different sensibilities.
That’s a terrific group of playwrights. Speaking of playwrights you enjoy, who are two or three of your favorite playwrights whose work D.C. audiences should experience?
Well, Chisa Hutchinson (Dead & Breathing, She Like Girls)! Two or three is so hard. Can I give you a list? Kirsten Greenidge, (Milk Like Sugar), Victoria “Tori” Stewart (Rich Girl), Saviana Stanescu (Aliens With Extraordinary Skills), Andrea Thome (Pinkolandia).
What are your thoughts about the lack of female playwrights consistently produced by theater companies?
I love that you phrased it that way. Thanks for saying the lack of female playwrights produced. I think some of it is fear. Or, here is the excuse that I hear – people want a name that people recognize. But there are a lot of names. I don’t really buy that as an excuse. I think people often go to what’s safe. Not that we shouldn’t be doing classics, but there is more work than people can image. I’m sure you’re familiar with The Kilroys List. I’m so glad to see these initiatives now – all of these organizing efforts so that’s not the case anymore – so people can’t say I never heard of so and so. Part of it is breaking the myth of visibility, because there are a lot of great sources out there for finding female playwrights.
Well said. What is the best piece of professional advice that you’ve been given and how has that played out in your career?
One of my teachers at the University of Iowa, Robert Blacker (at the time he was the Artistic Director of the Sundance Theater Lab) he gave me I think the best words of wisdom, and I give them now to my students. He said, when you graduate – Make Theater. Look around this room that you are in now. These are your peers; make theater with them. Don’t wait for a job. Don’t go looking for one. It’s right here in the room. And, that’s how I started.
A one-man show with a student led eventually to other things. I moved to New York City and I got connected to the Lark Play Development Center which became an artistic home. That’s where I met Chisa! In 2007-2008 I think, Chisa was working on a play of hers called She Like Girls. It was my first professional job in the city and I think it was hers too. So we met by happy accident at the Lark.
So was it a happy accident that you are directing her play Dead & Breathing at CATF?
Well, she will have to answer that. But I will say that this is my fourth major project with Chisa. Chisa for me is an epic writer. With her plays let me tell you, the power of Chisa’s writing, imagination, and creativity has this power to bring together the most amazing community of collaborators (directors, actors,and designers). I think this true for each one of her plays and I’m just honored to be a part of that community.
Obviously after four plays together you have an incredible relationship and her work speaks to you. What is it about her work specifically that has created this connection?
I really want to say – what can’t she write about? She can take some of the most difficult topics of us today to deal with and create a space for us to deal with them through the making of a theatrical event. For example, with Dead &Breathing to take a topic about dying but then also there’s so much in terms of race and gender and identity that is in this play. Through her theatrical vision, her humor is able to open our hearts in order to be receptive and help us listen and feel.
I think this goes back to my original impulse for going into theater. She creates that opportunity for us to get rid of a lot of our baggage by opening our hearts so that we can have conversation.
Let me flip that question now. Writing is so personal. Why do you believe she trusts you with her work?
Hmm. I think one of the things I’ve learned over the years working with so many writers is to be humble before the work and just get out of the way. To create a space in the rehearsal process and then in the production so we can all just get out of the way. That’s a messy process sometimes because sometimes you don’t know that you are in the way.That’s the fine line, the delicate process that I always have to ask myself. Am I in the way? Am I creating a block, an obstacle for the play to come through, or am I opening up a channel for it?
What were your greatest challenges with Dead & Breathing?
It’s been a real pleasure, and it’s always a real privilege to work on a first production of something. It’s never an easy process but you welcome the birth pains that come with it. It’s an extraordinary gift for us as artists to be able to birth something new: For actors to create a role based on the character that playwright has created, and for the Director to be the facilitator of that process.
The greatest challenges go to my fear with any production, but particularly this one. Have we dug deep enough? The take away for the audience has to originate with what’s on the play. It’s not what we put on top of it but it’s what we unearth.
What do you want audiences to think about after seeing the play?
Think about the capacity of love and the healing capacity of love. Forgive others and forgive ourselves. I think of love as compassion – love for another human being, compassion for self and compassion for others. Love is a bridge in this play.
The Playwright’s Playground: The Playmakers CATF 2014: Director Kristin Horton Discusses Radical Love, Lessons Learned, and the Power of Community with‘Dead & Breathing.’
The Playwright’s Playground: The Playmakers CATF 2014: Director Lucie Tiberghien Discusses Process, New Plays, and the Complex, Textured Clarity of ‘The Ashes Under Gait City.’
The Playwright’s Playground: The Playmakers CATF 2014: An Interview with Playwright Christina Anderson (The Ashes Under Gait City).
The Playwright’s Playground: The Playmakers CATF 2014: Ed Herendeen & Peggy McKowen Discuss the Development of CATF Plays,
The Playwright’s Playground: The Playmakers CATF 2014: Interview With Ed Herendeen & Peggy McKowen Who Preview the Season.
Kristin Horton’s website.
Director Jennifer Nelson speaks about Living Stage Theatre.
The Playwright’s Playground is a monthly in-depth conversation with local female playwright in the D.C. theatre community. Female theatre artists make up more than 50 percent of those involved in the theatre, yet the number of female playwrights being produced is dramatically lower. In this continuing Column, I will also interview and introduce DCMTA readers to the many talented playwrights in the DMV area to learn about their writing process, their inspirations, and their motivations and struggles to write and produce their art. Sydney-Chanele Dawkins.